Understand the role of revision in the lives of successful writers.

Our fast-paced, consumer-driven society is geared to offer a remarkable number of choices in nanoseconds. If the fast-food chain doesn't deliver lunch within sixty seconds, it's free. With a push of a button, people who live in large metropolitan areas can run through as many as 100 different channels on cable television.

Clearly, we live in an "information society," an age of smooth, mass-market packaging. We are bombarded with the polished printed word. Newspapers, magazines, junk mail, and interoffice
memos surround us like mosquitoes on a hot summer night, buzzing, "Buy me, read me, believe in me." Americans spend over three months of their lives just opening and discarding all of the junk mail stuffed into their mailboxes, 75 percent of which they don't read. Every minute two scientific papers are published, not to mention articles in the humanities, social sciences, and popular press. Gifted (and not-so-gifted) authors spend months polishing proposals and sales letters and then--with the use of photocopiers, fax machines, and computer modems--they send out copies in mass numbers.

What Are Students' Revising Practices?

The fast pace of our society often seems contrary to the reflective, introspective tone that we must adopt when we are trying to develop and write about ideas. And, perhaps because they are so accustomed to seeing polished final drafts, many students expect to create similar texts with little effort.

Many students are unaware of the crucial role revision plays in many professional writers' work. Kelli Sorrentino, an undergraduate student, writes:

When I first learned about revision in class, it was like some great revelation to me, for some reason. I think I had some sort of mistaken notion about leaving pieces of work "just as they came to me." I believed that there was something magical about inspiration. But now that I've learned to look at my work more critically, I realize that I can improve on all of my so-called "inspired ideas." Revising pieces constantly has taught me to improve on inspiration and when l really got into it, it proved to be a godsend. Now I really enjoy picking my writing apart because I've learned that this allows me to produce better writing than I've ever done before.

Students whose works are receiving low grades or befuddled looks from readers may have unreasonable expectations. Unlike professionals, they may assume they should write an essay in just two or three drafts. In contrast, experienced, professional writers understand that revision is crucial to successful writing.

Rather than viewing revision as a form of punishment or merely as an act of polishing ideas, professional writers consider revision to be an opportunity to develop their thinking—as an opportunity to be creative. When facing tough writing assignments, they rarely expect to produce a final copy after writing just one or two drafts. Comforted by the knowledge that few people express their ideas perfectly without practice, they expect to revise. They understand that revision is an inevitable step in the process of making meaning. For example, James Michener writes:

Getting words on paper is difficult. Nothing I write is good enough in the first draft, not even personal letters. Important work must he written over and over—up to six or seven times.

Perhaps the most pernicious assumption that inexperienced writers make is that polished, A-level essays are the products of an inspired mind, of "a born writer." Just as non-electricians tend to perceive electricity as a form of magic, inexperienced writers tend to be mystified by the creative process. As Lafcadio Hearn argued in his lectures at Tokyo University between 1896 and 1902, many novice writers wrongly assume that they should wait to be inspired before writing:

Nothing has been more productive of injury to young literary students than those stories, or legends, about great writers having written great books in a very short time. They suggest what must be in a million cases impossible, as a common possibility. It is much more valuable to remember that Gray passed fourteen years in correcting and improving a single poem, and that no great poem or book, as we now have the text, represents the first form [of] the text.

Almost everything composed by Tennyson was changed and changed and changed again, to such an extent that in almost every edition the test differed. Above all things do not imagine that any good work can be done without immense pains.

What Are Professional Writers' Revising Practices?

Successful writers look and look again at their manuscripts because they know that this constant reworking is one of the most effective ways to discover what they want to say and to find out what they have learned by writing:

  • "Think before you speak, is criticism's motto; speak before you think is creation's."-E.M. Forster
  • "I start my work by asking a question and then try to answer it." -Mary Lee Settle
  • "To rewrite ten times is not unusual. Oh, bother the mess, mark them as much as you like; what else are they for? Mark everything that strikes you. I may consider a thing forty-nine times; but if you consider it, it will be considered 50 times, and a line 50 times considered is 2 percent better than a line 49 times considered. And it is the final 2 percent that makes the difference between excellence and mediocrity." -George Bernard Shaw
  • "I'm working on something. I don't know exactly what." -Eudora Welty
  • "Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what one is saying." -John Updike
  • "I mean that generally the more you write--the more times you write it--the better the piece is." -Calvin Trillin
  • "We write out what we don't know about what we know." -Grace Paley
  • "There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. In contrast, when I'm greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed." -John Kenneth Galbraith
  • "A young author is tempted to leave anything he has written through fear of not having enough to say if he goes cutting out too freely. But it is easier to be long than short. Think of and look at your work as though it were done by your enemy. If you look at it to admire it you are lost. If we look at it to see where it is wrong, we shall see this and make it righter. If we look at it to see where it is right, we shall see this and not make it righter." -Samuel Butler
  • "lt's always taken me a long time to finish poems. When I was in my twenties I found poems taking six months to a year, maybe fifty drafts or so. Now I am going over two hundred drafts regularly, working on things four or five years and longer; too long! I wish I did not take so long." -Donald Hall
  • "I write out of ignorance. I write about the things I don't have any resolutions for, and when I'm finished, I think I know a little bit more about it. I don't write out of what I know. It's what I don't know that stimulates me."-Toni Morrison


 There are times when writers may be asked to take an essay they wrote and turn it into a speech: perhaps they will give a talk at a conference, stand in front of a class for an oral presentation, or be asked to create a YouTube video. The assignment—the task of revising a paper into something that will be performed (read aloud or otherwise “given” live)—does not simply mean using the paper that exists on the computer screen. Altering a paper to a speech challenges the writer to engage with the audience and revise the piece into one that is easy to follow and interesting to listen to. Writers will (hopefully) recognize the value in speaking a paper by learning the performative impact of clarity, concision, ethos, and organization.

There are some things to keep in mind when revising a paper into a piece that will be delivered live. Here are some tips to help in this process.

Explain your purpose and overall organization early.

A speech needs to communicate its purpose and range early-on. Not only will providing this information ensure effective communication with the audience, it will also guide the writer to greater clarity. Establishing the purpose early in the presentation helps the audience identify what they should listen for throughout (remember, unlike reading a paper, an audience cannot return to previous paragraphs). Next, take a moment to outline the remainder of the speech—the purpose here is to demonstrate the validity and strength of the argument. For example, a paper might include a paragraph like this one from a conference presentation on Hannah Cowley’s play A Bold Stroke for a Husband:

I will first draw attention to the portions of the plot that are significant for my argument. After this brief plot summary, I will discuss the critical reception of Victoria’s character from Cowley’s contemporaries and current scholarship because my interest in Victoria seems to differ from what is currently said about her. I will follow this with close readings of three scenes—first, Act Two Scene Two when we first see Victoria and learn about how she constructs her male identity, Florio; second, Act Four Scene One when we encounter Victoria’s ability to maintain all of her various roles; and, third, Act Five Scene Two, the scene in which Laura and Carlos discover Victoria’s cross-dressing.

The paragraph identifies the order in which the writer will present information and helps the audience know what to expect. Similarly, in a live presentation, you will want to provide such verbal cues to the audience in order to allow them to easily follow the overarching argument and significant sub-points.  

Use transitions and sign-posts.

Employ transitions and segues for the listener that explain connections between ideas: use words and phrases that build upon previous arguments, make comparisons, give examples, show the effects of something, highlight, emphasize, and summarize. Some examples include:

  • First/second/third, next, and then
  • In addition, furthermore, similarly
  • To illustrate, for example
  • As a result, consequently, therefore
  • However, in other words, conversely
  • In conclusion, in summary

For a more extensive description of transitions see “Add Appropriate Transitional Language to Connect Ideas.” 

While it is important to include transitional phrases, a presentation that over-uses such terms may cause the delivery to feel too formulaic. Avoid seeming “artificial” by being willing to “think on your feet,” incorporating another speaker’s ideas, or integrating current events that are immediate and relevant to your talk, for use as transitions.

Create various sentence lengths.

Because the audience will be listening to, rather than reading, the presentation must be both clear and engaging. One way to do this is to vary shorter, clearer sentences with longer, more complex sentences. To illustrate the value of varying your sentence lengths, examine this introduction to a paper that compares Susan Bordo’s “Material Girl” and Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way”:

Susan Bordo’s critique of post-modernism uses a materialist feminist standpoint to illustrate the problem of celebrating Madonna as “the new postmodern heroine” (352) and examines the ways in which Madonna’s function as a “material girl” provides an interesting perspective on the influence of Madonna in the 1980s. However, examining now (in 2011) the effects Madonna had on feminism in the 1980s seems outdated. I question whether Madonna truly reigns as the postmodern heroine; instead, I contend that Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna and the previous celebration of Madonna as a “subversive culture-figure” no longer applies (352). In this paper I propose that Lady Gaga is the new “Material Girl,” who must be called “The Headless Monster.”

The sentences in this paragraph are varied in length, use a variety of punctuation, and would be easy to follow when spoken by the writer.  

Modify the incorporation of evidence.

Just as the audience may find it difficult to listen to long, complex sentences, they may also struggle to follow along with/distinguish quoted material. A writer needs to modify the incorporation of evidence so that the delivery clearly indicates the material and source used (after all, viewers will not see quotes or in-text citations, right?). Try to paraphrase as much as possible and stick to shorter quotes. Of course, a writer should build ethos into a paper by including evidence from established scholars, but the speaker must make clear which words or phrases come from a particular source. Here is an example from the earlier paper on Bold Stroke for a Husband:

Current scholarship similarly focuses on Victoria’s “bold stroke” to reclaim Carlos as her husband. Jeffrey Cox argues that Cowley’s play is as a comedy of manners that places women “totally in control of the comic action” (367). He claims “Victoria appears as the most staid of Cowley’s women, as she is set on preserving her apparently traditional marriage, but even she adopts the ‘unlady-like’ even if theatrically conventional plan of pretending to be a man” (370). Furthermore, he concludes, “Victoria takes up the role of a man so that she can win back the role of wife she would prefer to play” (374).  

These sentences provide three different ideas from Jeffrey Cox’s article that are set-off by quotation marks. In order to break-up the different quotes from Cox and indicate to the audience what the writer is quoting, the paper incorporates transitional and introductory phrases such as “he claims” and “furthermore, he concludes.” Additionally, you may consider using physical gestures to indicate quotations: simply raise your hands and use the index and third fingers, bending them quickly, making a “bunny ears” motion. This gesture prevents the need to say “quote” and “unquote” which can disrupt the flow and coherence of the ideas.    

Along with revising the presentation so it is concise, easy to follow, and clear, it must be engaging. Speeches should be stimulating and interesting to hear. Most people do not want to listen to a speech that is monotone: Where. Every. Sentence. Sounds. The. Same. Continually engage the audience by making eye contact, creating clear sentences, varying tone of voice, and acting confident. To actively engage the audience, practice the following advice.

Read slowly.

It takes a lot more attention to listen to a paper than to read one, so avoid speaking too quickly. Be calm and slow down. Throughout the paper use a bold font to remind yourself to “Breath,” “Pause,” and “Look at the audience.” Also include specific words in italics or bold font as a way to highlight the argument, vary the tone of voice, and keep the audience engaged (coincidentally, adding emphasis also provides hints to the audience about what is most important).

Look away from the paper and make eye contact with the audience.

Listening to a presentation while the speaker continually looks down at the paper becomes terribly boring. To prevent this, choose and mark sections of the paper to look up at the audience and talk about a particular idea from memory. Memorizing small bits of the paper or providing a handout from which the speaker ad-libs are two methods of putting down the essay and interacting with the audience. Most speakers become most alive when they step away from the printed page.      

Be aware of your time.

Think about the length of the paper and the amount of necessary time to prove the argument. Typically, it takes 20 minutes to read a ten-page paper and ten minutes to read a five-page paper.


"Revising a Paper to Deliver" was written by Cassie Childs, University of South Florida

Works Cited

Bordo, Susan. "'‘Material Girl': The Effacements of Postmodern Culture.” The Gender and Sexuality Reader. Ed. Roger N. Lancaster and Micaela di Leonardo. New York: Routledge, 1997. 335–38. Print.   

Cox, Jeffrey N. “Cowley’s Bold Stroke for Comedy.” European Romantic Review 17.3 (2006): 361–75. Web. 16 Oct. 2011.